MLB: Riskiest Free Agent Signings of the Offseason

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Every MLB offseason, there are a handful of high-risk signings that backfire. Last year, this came in the form of Chris Davis re-signing with the Orioles and Zack Greinke’s $206.5M contract with the Diamondbacks.

The 2016-2017 offseason has been a bit different, featuring only one $100M+ signing. Even with this year’s moderate level of spending, we’ve still witnessed some questionable contracts being handed out.

Not everyone judges free agents signings the same, so let’s define what risk means to me. In this article, the players categorized as risky likely come with the risk of injury. MLB pitchers are considered more volatile than position players, and two of the four biggest contracts went to relievers this year. Consider that your fair warning: There are relievers on this list. This should come as no surprise, though, considering relievers often have inconsistent results on a year-to-year basis. After all, a full season for a reliever is 70 innings, about one-third that of a starting pitcher.

On a very basic level, this list is the result of comparing the size of the contracts signed to the expected production of these players. The variables I will base this on are past production, health and position changes. Although the biggest contract typically comes with the most risk, Yoenis Cespedes‘ four-year, $110M contract will not be on this list. When you have a 135 wRC+ with 66 home runs, a cannon of an arm and 9.9 fWAR in the past two seasons, you deserve $27.5M a year. In addition, limiting him to a corner outfield spot maximizes his value defensively. In my meaningless opinion, the Mets did good with the Cespedes signing. Before we dive right in, let’s a look at a coupe players that narrowly missed this list.

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Honorable Mentions

Rarely is it a good thing to not make “the list.” However, due to the nature of this particular list, this is one of those times.

Rich Hill

I was close to putting the Dodgers’ re-signing of Rich Hill on here, but came to the conclusion that L.A. doesn’t really care about spending another $48M over the next three years. He’s had a very limited run of success, pitching just 139.1 innings in the last two seasons. When he is on the mound, though, he’s been unhittable. Of all MLB starters to pitch 130+ innings since the start of 2015, Hill’s ERA of 2.00 is second only to Clayton Kershaw (1.96). As a result of the small number of innings, his 4.9 fWAR doesn’t even rank within the top 30 in that span. If he’s healthy, Hill is a top of the rotation starter. His poor health and spotty track record is why I considered him for this list. What saved him from inclusion is his reasonable $16M salary, combined with the Dodgers’ disregard for spending.

Mark Melancon

As I mentioned previously, big-money signings for relievers make me nervous. Until this year, the largest contract ever give to a reliever was Jonathan Papelbon‘s four-year, $50M deal with the Phillies. That was signed back in 2011, but the market has shifted drastically since then. This offseason alone, we’ve witnessed three relievers sign for more than $60M. Any sizable contract given to a reliever is risky, but one of these isn’t so bad.

In fact, the Giants’ signing of Mark Melancon may be one of the best MLB signings all winter. At four years and $62M, the Giants are only paying Melancon $3M/year more than the Phillies were paying Papelbon. Since 2013, Melancon has averaged nearly 2.0 fWAR per season. To put that into context, only Aroldis Chapman (9.7), Kenley Jansen (9.4), and Dellin Betances (8.5) have accumulated more wins than Melancon’s 7.9 as a reliever in that time. Melancon’s getting paid, but he’s worth it.

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RP Aroldis Chapman, New York Yankees

I know, I know. How can one of the top-three relievers in all of MLB be overpaid? He’s got a career 2.08 ERA with an even better FIP of 1.88, and an eye-popping 15.18 K/9 since coming into the league. We’re talking about a reliever that has averaged more than 2.0 fWAR per year in seven seasons. Can Aroldis Chapman really be overpaid? At five years and $86M, yes, he can.

First of all, five years is way too far into the future to predict when it comes to relievers. Especially one that was used very questionably this past postseason. Chapman’s 73.2 IP last season (including playoffs) are the most he’s ever pitched in the U.S., and many were quick to pounce on Joe Maddon for using Chapman in three consecutive World Series games. This was best exemplified in Game 6, when Chapman was brought into the game despite Chicago having a five-run lead.

“I don’t think I needed to come into that game… the important game was going to be Game 7 and basically we had that game almost won… The next game I came in tired.’’ – Aroldis Chapman 

Coming off a postseason in which he was admittedly overused, there’s no telling how Chapman will perform in 2017. As I was watching the World Series all I could think to myself was, “Chapman won’t be throwing as hard next year.” Hopefully, for the Yankees’ sake, I am wrong. Considering his success relies solely on his fastball velocity, Chapman was a risky signing. He’s never been much of a location pitcher (career 4.13 BB/9), meaning his value will go as his velocity does.

Any residual effects from his overuse last postseason could make this signing a major mistake for the Yankees. Even if he keeps things up next year, his velocity is bound to drop sooner or later. Eventually Chapman will be just like every other upper-90s bullpen guy, and there are a lot of those. Personally, I’d rather use that $17.2 annual salary elsewhere.

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RP Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers

Here’s another elite reliever that may have you scratching your head. Much like Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen is one of the best relievers in MLB. So why is Jansen on this list? Because $80M is a lot of money to shell out for someone who throws about 65 innings in a season. Jansen’s $16M salary next season actually makes Papelbon’s $12.5M annual pay look pretty reasonable, doesn’t it? Obviously Jansen deserves to be well-paid, but one small tweak in his arm could cost the Dodgers $80M.

Jansen’s main pitch is his cutter. Straight from the mouth of his catcher, that 98 mph cutter is why he’s successful. According to Dodgers backstop Yasmani Grandal, that cutter is all that matters for Jansen. Sound like any other relievers you may know? It’s no secret that the best reliever of all time, Mariano Rivera, succeeded due to his cutter. Don’t get me wrong, Kenley Jansen has had an excellent seven-year stretch, but in my mind he’s no Mariano.

Last season, Jansen was absolutely lights-out. His 1.83 ERA, 1.44 FIP, 47 saves and 3.2 fWAR in ’16 are all career bests. Of course, a career low HR/FB mark of 5.6 percent deserves some of the credit for his success. An abnormally low BABIP of .238 also played a part in Jansen’s career year, which gives me reason to expect some regression.

If Jansen was a lock to match his ’16 numbers next year, I would feel more comfortable with this signing. That’s far from a certainty, though, as he seems destined to surrender more hits and home runs in 2017. He’ll be a 2.50 ERA-type of guy that’s getting paid more than any reliever except Chapman. If I were the Dodgers front office, I would have given Mark Melancon a call.

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OF/1B Ian Desmond, Colorado Rockies

Of all the free agent signings this offseason, Ian Desmond to the Rockies makes the least sense. Coming off a year in which he made a relatively smooth transition from shortstop to center field, the Rockies signed Desmond with the intention of putting him at first base. With Charlie Blackmon, David Dahl, Carlos Gonzalez and Gerardo Parra already in place, there was little need for an outfielder in Colorado.

In a free agent class that featured Edwin Encarnacion, Mike Napoli, Mark Trumbo and Jose Bautista, it makes little sense that the Rockies went with Ian Desmond as their right-handed power bat. Desmond’s wRC+ of 106 was eighth among center fielders in 2016, as was his 3.3 fWAR. The problem is, that 106 wRC+ would have ranked 18th as a first baseman. Even with the Coors Field boost, Steamer projects just an .801 OPS for Desmond in 2017. That’s not very good for a Colorado first baseman. As a point of reference, Mark Reynolds had an OPS of .804 for the Rockies last season, and provided just 0.1 fWAR.

“I’m going to work as hard as I can right now to be the best first baseman I can be. I’ll keep the other tools fresh also, just to try to be as much of a help as I can.” – Ian Desmond

If he was signed to play center field (or shortstop) next season , five years at $70M wouldn’t look so bad. A shortstop or center fielder capable of hitting 20 home runs is a very valuable asset. But a first baseman with the same skill set is rather mundane. At $14M/year, Desmond would be an absolute steal if he was playing a key defensive position. Unfortunately, he’s not, and the Rockies are on the hook for five years of mediocre production at first base. Should they trade one of their outfield starters, this deal will make a lot more sense.

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